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John McWhorter on Talk of the Nation

Chad Nilep, SLA Blogger

Yesterday linguist and political commentator John McWhorter was interviewed on the National Public Radio call-in show Talk of the Nation. His topic was the recent call by the Drug Enforcement Agency to hire “Ebonics translators.” McWhorter supports the move, since it can be difficult for speakers of different dialects to understand rapid, casual speech in Black English.

(Listen here.)

McWhorter generally does a good job describing the relationship between Black English (also know as Ebonics, AAVE, and numerous other labels) and Standard American English. He also mentions his opposition to the use of non-standard dialects in schools (a minority position among linguists* and educational anthropologists**), but is not given much opportunity to make his case.

On the other hand, McWhorter offers clear and factual counter-arguments to a caller who insists that Ebonics should not be recognized or employed since it is not “proper English.” The caller makes a somewhat bizarre claim that Arabic has standard and non-standard dialects, since it is “an actual spoken language,” whereas English is “the primary language here” and brooks no variation.

One point, though, is left a bit unclear. This is, I think, due to time constraints and not Dr. McWhorter’s ability to make the argument. I will presume to expand these parting remarks.

McWhorter: Dialects differ to various degrees. And so there’s Brooklyn English, there’s Black English. If you listen to Jamaican Patois then most of us have a hard time getting any of it except for isolated words. Then you’ve got Dutch. So that’s the way human speech varieties work, and it can be a challenge to bridge the gaps.

For those who understand the linguistic and cultural dimensions of language variation, this is clear enough. As callers’ and web viewers’ comments show, though, many people do not understand how linguists think about variation.

All speakers use language somewhat differently, and languages, including English, can be divided into varieties or dialects. Regional dialects, such as Brooklyn English, are associated with particular places. Social dialects, such as Black English, are associated with groups of people. These dialects differ from Standard English, which is imagined as a variety of English free from regional, social, or other dialect markers. (No one actually speaks “pure” Standard English; it is an ideal.)

A language is said to consist of a range of mutually intelligible dialects. English speakers in Savannah, Georgia, can understand speakers from Brooklyn, New York, even though each may think the other talks funny. Each might struggle to understand a speaker of Jamaican Creole English (a.k.a. Jamaican Patois), but might still think of themselves as each speaking a variety of English.

Dutch, like English, is a West Germanic language, and with abundant patience and good will speakers of the two can sometimes understand one another. Still, for political and cultural reasons, as well as the tenuous mutual intelligibility, the two ways of speaking are thought of as separate languages.

Probably no one would object to government agencies employing Dutch-English translators, nor to Dutch-medium schools teaching English as a foreign language (or vice-versa). Objections to the DEA hiring “Ebonics translators” or to the use of Black English or other non-standard varieties in classes designed to teach Standard English are thus primarily social and political objections, not linguistic ones.

*See, for example, the Linguistic Society of America’s resolution on the use of “Ebonics.”

**See, for example, Fordham’s (1999) “Dissin’ the Standard.”
Fordham, Signithia. (1999). Dissin’ “the Standard”: Ebonics as guerrilla warfare at capital high. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 30: 272–293. doi: 10.1525/aeq.1999.30.3.272

See also Samy Alim and Imani Perry’s DEA and Ebonics, below.

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